The ACT Government’s move to put the brake on weekend bus services to improve their reliability has provoked a backlash from the other political parties and public transport advocates, who floated the possibility of private contractors.
The announcement comes after the Government faced increasing pressure over continuing weekend cancellations due to a lack of drivers, and after the Legislative Assembly called on it to address the issue and find better ways to notify passengers.
The Government has responded by announcing that a revised weekend timetable is to be introduced on Saturday 28 September at the end of the current school term, with local route buses running less frequently, up to every two hours.
Thursday’s Assembly resolution, after a Liberals motion was amended by the Government and the Greens, called on the Government to release an action plan within a month.
The Greens amendments also called on the Government to increase bus driver numbers through continued recruitment and consider incentives for drivers to work weekends.
Transport and City Services Minister Chris Steel said the new network had seen extra 1377 weekend services and 27 per cent more journeys on public transport on weekends compared to the same period last year.
But not enough drivers have been volunteering for weekend shifts to cover them and average weekend reliability has been at 89 per cent, which the Government admits is not acceptable.
While the Government has embarked on a recruitment campaign, specifically for part-time and casual drivers, to fill the gaps, it has now decided that it needs to cut services.
Mr Steel said network planners would work closely with the Transport Workers Union to agree on the new bus driver shifts, and services may be restored when more drivers came on board.
He said that rapid bus services would run at same frequency, services would still start early and run late and weekend services would still run on the same route and same number as the weekday services.
The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) said the Government’s response was not a sustainable long-term solution and the current driver EBA was not fit for purpose.
“It’s very disappointing that the Transport Canberra drivers still won’t volunteer to work weekends in sufficient numbers,” PTCBR Chair Damien Haas said.
“While driver recruitment could have been increased in the lead-up to Network 19, it still remains a fact that the voluntary aspect of weekend work is a 1970s workplace practice, and is no longer suitable for a seven day a week bus network.
“The composite hourly rate that drivers are paid, should ease a move to a shift system where adequate numbers of drivers can be allocated to bus services on a seven day a week basis.”
He said contracting private bus operators using MyWay readers may be the way forward.
“While the TWU would not like this option, the solution lies in their hands, and their willingness to adhere to the EBA they agreed to,” he said.
The PTCBR also wanted to see improved real-time data that would enable the various timetable apps, such as NXTBUS to be more reliable.
Mr Haas said the privately operated Canberra Metro light rail continued to operate seven days a week, and that light rail vehicle drivers appeared to be happy to work weekends.
Greens Transport spokesperson Caroline Le Couteur also said cutting weekend routes was not a real solution.
“It’s particularly concerning that with suburban routes cut, it appears that some people will have no bus service over the weekend,” she said.
Ms Le Couteur said the Government had not flagged any of these changes in the Assembly during debate on the issue.
“The other question is what is going to happen between now and 28 September? Will the unscheduled cancellations continue? Right now the Canberra public deserves certainty,” she said.
The Liberals transport spokesperson Candice Burch said the Government had admitted defeat and was incapable of delivering the weekend bus network that was promised.
“Mr Steel has also continuously refused to publish a list of cancelled services, instead instructing Canberrans check the NXTBUS app 90 minutes before their journey.
“Now, rather than fixing driver shortages, the Minister has decided to just cut the weekend services that Canberrans were promised,” she said.
“And with services being cut from 28 September, it is still not clear how the Minister will give passengers certainty that their bus will run over the next six weeks.”
At Tuggeranong Bus Depot, Mr Steel welcomed eight bus drivers who graduated from their training on Friday (16 August), with 12 more having just started their training. Another 16 will start training in the coming weeks.